Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Si, Se Puede, Baez!

Joan Baez, in her 20s (the picture is taken from here)

There are many times that you are unhapppy with the system,
There are many times that you want to speak yet you feel you aren't heard
There are many times that you might feel powerless,
But in many ways, you are stronger than what you tought...
(my own words, after learning about a great woman, Joan Baez)

This story began its seed in my mind since 2005, started by a song that touched my heart. I felt that it touched me in the depth of questioning the state of life and freedom. It was Donna Donna, a song popularized by Joan Baez. I found a touching story of the Donna Donna origin*, yet in my opinion, what makes it spread worlwide was because of the soul that Baez put in the tones. Baez, in her life, has been a human rights activist who speaks loudly through her music. I used to wonder why Donna Donna has never been not so popular in any list of her songs, but however it is, Donna Donna was my eye-opener toward Baez' great works in life.

I heard that song for the first time way later from the year when it was composed. My first Donna Donna was the one sang by Sita Nursanti, an Indonesian singer. It was one of the soundtracks in Gie, an Indonesian movie about Soe Hok Gie, an Indonesian activist for democracy in 1960's. That song got me so deep that I always wondered in what context it was written. Then I found that there was Joan Baez' singing that song a long time ago.
I searched more about Baez after I watched Slacker Uprising couple of weeks ago. She appeared in one of the scenes, to encourage young people to vote for Barrack Obama. I was dying to hear her singing Donna Donna, but instead, she chose a Finnish national anthem for the audience, to remind them about the love to their motherland.... *sigh*

Baez' affiliation to Obama's candidacy is quite historical as she has been identical as a non-partisan figure in American political activities. Amazingly, on February 3, 2008 Baez wrote a letter to the editor at the San Francisco Chronicle endorsing Barack Obama in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. She noted that, "Through all those years, I chose not to engage in party politics ... At this time, however, changing that posture feels like the responsible thing to do. If anyone can navigate the contaminated waters of Washington, lift up the poor, and appeal to the rich to share their wealth, it is Senator Barack Obama..."

More support to Obama was shown when she played on the Acoustic Stage at the Glastonbury Festival in June. Baez said during the introduction of a song, that one reason she likes Obama is because he reminds her of another old friend of hers - Martin Luther King.* (Wikipedia)

I am drawn further into the stories of her life. Born in 1941 in Mexico and living her chilhood in many countries, including Iraq, as her father worked in education field and for the UNESCO, Baez started to develop her view on poverty and inhumane treatments to the people. Music, and civil rights movements seemed to be her path of destiny that walk side-by-side unseparatedly. In 1956 in the same year when she had her first guitar, she heard a young Martin Luther King, Jr. lecture on nonviolence and civil rights for the first time. It took not so long for her to express her humanist stand. Just in the next year, 1957, she started to take a stand within her idealism of no war. She committed her first act of civil disobedience by refusing to leave her high school, Palo Alto High School in California, during an air-raid drill, as she claimed it to be government's propaganda to create paranoia on atomic war. In that year she also met Gandhian scholar, Ira Sandperl, who becomes one of her strongest political influences.

Then she bloomed, not only in her musical career but also in civil right movements. My heart beat even faster to find that she was once an identical singer to "We Shall Overcome". This song is so dear in my heart as with my fellow students, during the 1998 Student Movement for Democratic Reform in Indonesia, we marched all the way with that song, we yelled on that message, after 4 students were shot by Indonesian Army in Jakarta as they rallied for the reform. Until then I really have never known that We Shall Overcome is considered as civil right anthem written by Pete Seeger, and had been sang even since the times of Marthin Luther King's movements....

I adore her courageous acts. I think it is very brave that a new singer who has just started her career dared to take unpopular stand by joining Civil Rights movement in the United States. Joan supported Martin Luther King to protect African American schoolchildren in Grenada, Mississippi and joined him on his march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, singing for the marchers in the town of St. Jude as they camped the night before arriving in Montgomery. Her song, "Birmingham Sunday" that was written by her brother-in-law, Richard Farina, was the soundtrack of "Four Little Girls," Spike Lee's film about the four young victims killed in the bombing of an African American church by racists in 1963.

Realizing her rights as a citizen, she performed another extreme-but-(in my opinion), reasonable action by withholding 60% of her income taxes, as the amount was determined to be used for military purposes by the U.S. government at that time. It was the way she protested toward U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Unbelievably, I cannot recall any other person in the history who has done the same action as she did. It is inspiring to see how she fought the system in her own way, parallel to unfavorable policies performed by the administration of the country.

She continued to withhold portions of her taxes for the next ten years, despite of the legal consequences that she had to bear. And, after performing for President Johnson in Washington, she urged him to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam. That, I think, is the great thing that you can do when you are a public figure. Raising the awareness with the power that you have, and trying to speak up instead of trapping yourself in the spiral of silence.

One more thing that looks relevant about her past and today's America is "Si, Se Puede". I'm sure you often hear about it recently, spelled side by side to the famous Obama's "Yes, We Can".
Baez had been sounding that message since more than 30 years ago. It started with her involvement in United Farmworkers Union (UFW) movement that started in 1966 where she stood for California's migrant farm workers as they fought for fair wages and safe working conditions. Until in 1972, she was at Cesar Chavez's side during his 24-day fast to draw attention to the farmworkers' struggle and sang "We Shall Overcome" during the fast in the film about the UFW, "Si Se Puede".

Baez' journey expanded my point of view toward the other sides of American history. How in this said-to-be free country, the freedom was not at all something that one was taking for granted. Her dedication to folk songs, her works with Institute For The Study Of Nonviolence, Save the Children, Amnesty International, anti-war and anti-discrimination marches, the bans to her performance and albums, censorships, mistranslated political comments, her love stories, her visit to Vietnam, and many other works that she made makes me feel that she has been living a thousand lives.

I adore that kind of person, for the bravery of fighting for the values that she believes is true and at the same time creating remarkable works and inspiring people, since her youthful days of early 20s until today, when she already enters her 60s.
She, I think, shows us the realization of ..."Si, Se Puede!"

Joan Baez, in her 60s, still performing. I think she is more beautiful in this age! :)
(picture is taken from here)

Donna Donna

Donna Donna - Sita (RSD)

On a waggon bound for market
there's a calf with a mournful eye
High above him there's a swallow,
winging swiftly through the sky

How the winds are laughing,
they laugh with all their might
Laugh and laugh the whole day through,
and half the summer`s night

Donna, Donna, Donna, Donna;

Donna, Donna, Donna, Don.
Donna, Donna, Donna, Donna;
Donna, Donna, Donna, Don.

"Stop complaining!“ said the farmer,
Who told you a calf to be?
Why don`t you have wings to fly with,
like the swallow so proud and free?“

Calves are easily bound and slaughtered,
never knowing the reason why
But whoever treasures freedom,
like the swallow has learned to fly...
Words by Aaron Zeitlin (1889-1973); music by Sholom Secunda (1894-1974). Published in sheet music by Metro Music Co., New York, 1943.Originally entitled "Dana, Dana, Dana,": the song was written for Zeitlin's play Esterke, produced by Maurice Schwartz in 1940-41, and printed in the program. It became one of the most widely sung Yiddish songs and was performed in Yiddish and English translation by Theodore Bikel, Joan Baez, and others translations have also appeared in German and Korean. In some collections, beginning with Ben Yomen's (1946), the words are erroneously attributed to Yitskhok Katzenelson, a Hebrew-Yiddish poet active in the Warsaw Ghetto underground. In a recent record produced in Germany, not only is the song attributed to Katzenelson, it is interpreted as having been written in the Ghetto to express Jews' longing for freedom.


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